HC Deb 25 March 1993 vol 221 cc1221-3
2. Mr. Austin Mitchell

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the state of the English fishing industry.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry)

The most pressing immediate problem facing the fish catching industry is the weak state of the market.

Mr. Mitchell

Instead of blaming the fishermen for the bankruptcy that they face and instead of compounding that bankruptcy by the insanity of days-at-sea limitations, why does not the Minister act? Why does he not deal with the small haddock crisis by increasing the minimum landing sizes? Why does he not ban the landing of round fish? Why does he not increase mesh sizes? Why does he not deal with Russian imports on a temporary basis, with a dumping ban? Why does he not provide the same kind of financial support for the industry as that provided by the French? Why does he not suspend the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill and talk to the industry? Most of all, why does he not stand up for fishing instead of lecturing—[Interruption.]

Mr. Curry

And why does the hon. Gentleman not think for himself instead of simply repeating every prejudice of the fishing industry? He would do fishermen a greater service if he did that. And why does he not think of his own constituents and the large number of people in the processing industry whose jobs depend on an adequate supply of fish? We will tackle the problem of small fish if the whole of the British industry will agree. We are asking its opinion and we will await the response from Northern Ireland and Scotland. I can act only if there is agreement. We will wait and see whether there is agreement. I have my doubts.

Mr. Harris

If there is another blockade by fishermen tomorrow—we hope that there will not be—will my hon. Friend accept that such action stems from a feeling of despair among many of our fishermen, not least in the south-west? However, will he cast some light on imports, particularly from Russia, and tell us exactly how much fish is being imported from Russia and how much cod is being landed by our own fishermen?

Mr. Curry

I hope that the industry will not resume its saga of blockade, demonstration and destruction of fish, particularly as recent signs are that fish prices have firmed considerably. That is what we said would happen. Perhaps that has happened because fishermen have been demonstrating so much that they have not been catching so many fish and fewer fish have been landed.

The prices of cod, haddock and plaice are roughly at last year's level and I am glad about that. That is very good news indeed. However, it shows that the whole of the problem does not lie with imported fish. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) acknowledged implicitly, there is a problem with small fish in the marketplace. There have also been very heavy landings of cod in Humberside. Some estimates state that twice as much cod is being landed as was landed this time last year from the north Norway fisheries.

It is difficult to know the precise quantities of Russian fish. Some of it is imported by the British fishing organisations themselves. However, it is certainly not enough to account for the whole of the problem in the market. We must look within our own industry to discover the reasons for some of those problems. If we look objectively, we can find the answers.

Mr. Salmond

Are not the short tempers and insults from the Government Front Bench a combination of panic and guilt about the situation in the fishing industry? When the Minister meets the English fisheries, will he synchronise that meeting with the Scottish fisheries Minister so that they both accept their inescapable responsibility for the destabilisation of the fish market at the present time? What measures is the Minister taking to improve the situation for English and Scottish fishermen?

Mr. Curry

The English and Welsh fishermen are telling us at the moment that they wish to ban imports of Russian cod. However, the Scottish Fishermen's Federation tells us that it does not want to ban those imports because it depends on the Klondiking fee for the sale of herring later in the season. As the two major parts of the industry are diametrically opposed, it makes it more difficult than it would be for fisheries Ministers if the two parts held the same point of view, and that point of view was sensible.

Sir Peter Emery

Will my hon. Friend time and again continue to repeat, for all the people of the fishing industry, the need for conservation? The sort of attacks that we have heard today do not take any account of the need to safeguard fish for the future, which we shall not have without the proper conservation measures.

Mr. Curry

I will certainly repeat that. My hon. Friend will be happy to know that we think that we are very close to agreement with the industry on a fully fledged conservation forum, to look at all the conservation measures, in which the Scottish and Northern Ireland industries will participate. The only problem is that, yesterday, the English fishing industry suggested that it was getting last-minute hesitations because it wished me to defer the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill entirely before it would talk. As we have made it clear that that was not a possibility and that technical conservation cannot provide all the answers, it would be very silly if it withdrew from that forum at the last minute. Conservation means the future of the fishery—if there are no fish, there is no future. Fish depend on conservation.

Mr. Morley

Does the Minister accept his responsibility for fisheries management? What kind of management is it that produces a fish famine before Christmas and cod mountains in the new year? Will he take action on round fish and minimum landing sizes? Above all, will he have genuine talks with the fishermen and take the opportunity of surplus fish to bring in proper conservation measures? He should consider them as an alternative to the Sea Fish (Conservation) Bill, which has been widely rejected.

Mr. Curry

Before the hon. Gentleman invites me to start regulating the amount of fish that must be landed from north Norway and to regulate every single day's catch by the fishing industry, he should think rather harder. We have producer organisations with responsibility for managing the fisheries. We have suggested how they can manage them more effectively, but they do not want to do it that way; they want to be left to do it their own way. We will do our best to eke out the fishery throughout the whole year, but those organisations have their role to play as well. It is not good enough for the industry always to find somebody else to blame for its problems. We will keep talking to the industry, but it must accept that there is a problem in the management which must be solved by the industry, as well as by me.